Kenya to use US and UK-trained special forces and rangers to capture Kismayu
In a recent trip to the warfront in Somalia, we travelled with a military unit that seemed different from the rest of the Kenya Defence Forces troops. They had a hard, professional quality and an air of competence about them that reminded me of what I had read about elite troops like Britain’s SAS and the US Navy Seals who killed Osama bin Laden.
When we tried to enquire who these men were, the military officer babysitting us laughed and said, “They are just like other troops,” a sentiment repeated by his commanding officer when we sat down with him later in the sweltering afternoon at Somali’s Xayo town.
At a time when many Kenyans think that KDF should send every soldier to the warfront and have the troops march to Al Shabaab’s bastion in the port city of Kismayu, The EastAfrican can now reveal that the military’s plan is to use a small elite force, in the low hundreds perhaps, for the final onslaught.
The Kenya military will be relying on two elite units, one of “Special Forces” trained and armed by the British and one of “Rangers” trained by the Americans.
Since their deployment in Somalia, the elite units have been engaged in clandestine intelligence missions, operating behind enemy lines.
Now, they are being tasked with the capture of Kismayu.
But though these are the men who will liberate the city from the Al Shabaab, the nature of their form of war means that their names will not be disclosed any time soon. “We do not speak about them. You should not even know about them,” a senior army officer remarked when we sought details of this unit before concluding, “They are our secret weapon.”
Military experts say that the use of the “special forces” is necessitated by the challenge that a built-up area like Kismayu poses for the Kenyan army.
Forecasts of a quagmire in Kismayu factor in the crowded urban setting, which will see KDF lose the advantage it enjoys of armoured vehicles and heavy weapons. The use of gunships will be strictly limited to prevent collateral damage.
The Kenyan troops will also be more vulnerable to urban guerrilla warfare, roadside bombs and the counterinsurgency warfare that so frustrated the Ethiopian forces earlier.
As a result, instead of using the large conventional troop deployments, KDF will employ the smaller but more effective elite units whose deployment ratio is about an eighth of that of conventional troops. These elite units have been trained and retrained in fighting in such areas.
Information from various military sources, security experts, media outlets and even information from the US military and the White House, points to Kismayu being “Kenya’s first special operations war.”
The Kenyan military seems to be borrowing from the US strategy against Al Qaeda of using small members of Special Forces, rather than massed divisions. Like the US units, Kenya’s elite units have state-of-the-art technology including night vision, communication detection devices and aircraft and weapons systems. They are all trained paratroopers.
These elite units are the subject of leaked exchanges between former US ambassador Michael Ranneberger and his seniors in Washington, which the whistleblower website Wikileaks obtained on September 1, 2011.
“The development of the land-based force has focused on two types of units: conventional army infantry battalions and an elite Kenya Army Special Operations Force (KSOF), of which the Kenya Army Ranger Strike Force (RSF) is a part,” the cables read.
The cables say, “In 2008, congressional concerns were expressed regarding the further development of the KSOF/RSF when its parent unit at the time, the 20th Parachute Battalion, was alleged to have committed human-rights violations during combat operations in the Mt. Elgon region of western Kenya.”
However, the Ministry of Defence, in consultation with the US embassy, offered to provide “the deployment histories of soldiers to be trained and made organisational changes necessary to ensure that the new unit is not contaminated by these allegations.”
The exchanges point out that “the DOD (Department of Defence) executive agent for training the KSOF/RSF is the Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAF), in co-ordination with the Kenya-US Liaison Office (AFRICOM permanently assigned personnel as part of the Missioncountry team). The KSOF/RSF training is ongoing.”
Seven years of training
The exchanges say that their training started in 2005 when the US Special Operations Forces started periodic engagement with “a company-sized element of the 20th Parachute Battalion called the Ranger Strike Force (RSF — then composed of approximately 99 soldiers), and conducted basic infantry training over the course of several Joint Combined Exercise Training events.”
After other elements of the elite 20th Parachute Battalion namely Headquarters, Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie companies were accused of human-rights abuses in a joint police-military operation in Mount Elgon to secure the area from the Sabaot Land Defense Force, in response to these concerns, the army transferred all KSOF-designated forces from the 20th Parachute Battalion to the 5th Kenya Rifles, the youngest infantry unit in the Kenya Army.
The US government was so concerned about the allegations that it incorporated a “vetting process” through which it could track their deployment history so as “to screen out any potential student who may have deployed to Mt Elgon to support the controversial operation.”
Future plans of the Kenya military included the Ranger Strike Force development to be “a 900-man KSOF Battalion located at Gilgil, Kenya by September 2011.”
This paper has established that the October incursion into Somalia affected the full implementation of the plan.
“This unit will consist of 450 frontline troops organised into three companies with an additional company in support. Battalion staff, a headquarters company, a heavy mortar platoon, a reconnaissance platoon and an anti-tank platoon will complete a Kenyan doctrinal light infantry battalion of 900 men. The unit is currently designated as a rapidly deployable motorised unit,” the cables read.
They further point out, “Kenyan aspirations are to expand deployment options to include Air Mobile (helicopter) and Airborne (parachute) when the necessary platforms become available to move and train the unit.”
There was a series of command-level visits and meetings from March 2008 to March 2009, with US military trainers reporting, “Kenya Army is on track to form the unit as described and in the proposed time, exceeding their original expectations.”
By Jan 2010, the US military had spent over $14.7 million on their training and equipment.
The RSF are trained on the US Army Ranger model. They started with a six-week basic and advanced light infantry course in October 2007.
Within two years, due to the rigours of the training and subsequent attrition, unit strength was about 240 soldiers.
In October 2009, the original unit was split into two companies, while a third one was formed in January 2010.
And, sure enough, the training was carried out by the Navy Seals under the United States Special Operations Command.
Some of them still training at Manda Bay Naval Base. On June 14, the Washington Post reported that about 120 US military personnel and contractors are stationed at Manda Bay. The US newspaper said that the Navy Seals and other commandos have used Manda Bay as a base from which to conduct raids against Somali pirates and Al Shabaab fighters.
The paper quoted an Africa Command spokeswoman who said that an engineering battalion of Navy Seabees had been assigned to complete a $10 million runway extension necessary for American C-130 troop transport flights to land at night and during bad weather.
The US government recently put a bounty of $7 million on the head of the founder of Al Shabaab, Ahmed Abdi aw-Mohammed, and $5 million each for Ibrahim Haji Jama, Fuad Mohamed Khalaf, Bashir Mohammed Mahamoud and Mukhtar Robow.
A further price of $3 million each was put on the heads of Al Shabaab leaders Zakariya Ismail Ahmed Hersi and Abdullahi Yare.
Hours later, the Al Shabaab responded by saying that they also had put a price of 10 camels on US President Barack Obama’s head.
A source at the US embassy in Nairobi told The EastAfrican that the US will provide intelligence to KDF and other Amisom forces.
Just this month, President Obama officially acknowledged for the first time previously secret US military combat operations in Somalia.
President Obama’s surprise revelation came through a letter to Congress on the evening of June 15, a six-monthly obligation under the
War Powers resolution passed in 1973. “In Somalia, the US military has worked to counter the terrorist threat posed by Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda associated elements of Al Shabaab. In a limited number of cases, the US military has taken direct action against members of Al Qaeda, including those who are also members of Al Shabaab, who are engaged in efforts to carry out terrorist attacks against the United States and our interests,” President Obama said. The attacks in Somalia began in January 2007.
In the new warfare around the globe directed by President Obama, the campaigns primarily involve the Central Intelligence Agency and the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC.) The US is using secret bases in the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Seychelles, Ethiopia, and counter-terrorism base at Camp Lemonnier, a former French Foreign Legion base in Djibuoti.
The US involvement in Africa is also part of its efforts to capture two dozen Al Qaeda leaders and their allies, including Younis Al Mauritani, who are reported to be living in Pakistan, Somalia and North Africa.
Al Mauritani was in charge of Al Qaeda’s international operations, tasked to plan attacks on key economic targets in the United States, Europe and Australia.
The US is also targeting white American jihadis, all converts to Islam, believed to be in Somalia.
While addressing a meeting organised by the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies on June 25, in Arlington, Virginia, Gen Carter F. Ham of Africom, the US Africa Command commander, said that the US support for Amisom is an example of how the United States works to support African militaries, mainly through training, equipping, and funding. Gen Ham added that the US was helping Kenya with support from Ethiopia.
The US is also helping the other Amisom contributor nations namely Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti and Sierra Leone.
“Not a large US military presence — we think that would be counterproductive, actually, in Somalia — but rather applying the resources that we do have to help those countries that are willing to contribute to this effort, to help them with training and equipping and with some funding so that they can continue their operations. And I think that’s a pretty good model for us,” Gen Ham said.
Before starting training the Special Forces, British troops were training the 20 Para division, as part of an annual £4 million assistance package, in regional stability and border security.
The British troops have been training the Special Forces and carrying out military exercises with them.
Various nations in the European Union are also involved in the war against Al Shabaab, especially on the sea and in sectors under the command of Ugandan, Djibouti and Burundian forces where they are involved in intelligence gathering and sharing and military strategy.
The US is negotiating with EU to have battleships of the Atlante force fighting piracy in the Indian Ocean provide support to the Kenyan navy during the Kismayu attack.
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, on May 22, the EU launched its first known strike against a land-based pirate operation, destroying nine speedboats, an arms dump and fuel supplies.
Support from local fighters
Apart from fighting alongside the Somali National Army (SNA) and the Sheikh Madobe-led Ras Kamboni Brigade, Kenya is also said to be reaching out to other small militias and warlords, among them former Somali defence warlord Col Barre Adan Shire (Barre Hirale).
In May, the SomaliReport, an online newspaper, reported that the former leader of Juba Valley Alliance, Barre Hirale, left Ethiopian “custody” in Dolow and made his away to El Wak (Ceel-waaq) in Gedo region, which is under the control of SNA and KDF.
Barre Hirale will be vital to politics in southern Somalia and as part of an exit strategy because he controlled Kismayu for eight years. Unconfirmed reports say that he has since been in contact with KDF officials.
Although the Chief of Kenya Defence Force, Gen Julius Karangi said early this month that Kismayu would be taken before the mandate of the weak African-backed transitional federal government (TFG) ends on August 20, sources say that it’s only a matter of weeks before allied forces enter Kismayu.
“We are in the planning stages for the battle for Kismayu,” they said, adding that the Kenyan navy is ready for the battle of Kismayu. “They are just waiting at sea.”